Stages of Marriage

What you don't know can hurt you!

stages of marriage and relationships

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• Have you ever wondered if you are really with the right person?
• Do you notice that the fun, aliveness and connection you had in the beginning has faded?
• Are you beginning to feel unhappy?

It's probably NORMAL! AND there is more hope than you might think to make it more of what you both want.

Predictable Stages of Marriage:

Couples go through predictable stages in marriage, and sometimes before marriage. Even in the happiest marriages, you will revisit various stages. With information and tools you can learn to navigate the stages and use them to deepen conscious love. Just knowing the stages can help you discover where you are and what stages can move you toward deeper love.

We’ve all heard jokes about marriage or exclusive committed relationship ruining a perfectly good relationship. And it might even feel like that in your own relationship or in the marriage of someone you care about.

Why does something that starts out feeling so good seem to go downhill once you take that step of commitment?

One reason is that relationships go through predictable stages. You may notice that relationships with friends, a boss, a job, or an adopted child may follow a similar pattern; everything seems wonderful and then the “honeymoon” is over. Frustrations or hurt feelings begin to mount.

In marriage or in a deeply committed love relationship, these stages are often more intense. You have much more at statke when you make a commitment to spend your lives together to love and be loved.

Let's take a look at the basic stages adapted from the work of Harville Hendrix, Ph.D.:

Stage I: Romantic Love


I like to call this LUI (Love Under the Influence).

romantic love stageThe Romantic Love stage often feels so good that you want it to last forever. In fact, you expect it to last forever! You feel energized, alive, and filled with new dreams. In romantic relationships, your heart is filled with love and you know that this person loves you. You both find many ways to show your love. When you’re apart, you are thinking of one another. Everything feels right. Some people feel a sense of finally ‘being home’ or of being ‘complete’, feeling alive and connected. You tend to go above and beyond what is required or expected. Everything seems perfect at first. If you see 1 or 2 things that you don’t like, you tend to minimize them.

love neurochemicalsWhat we now know through research is that not only is your heart full of love, but your brain is flooded with feel-good neurochemicals like dopamine and PEA (phenylethylamine). Chemically, PEA belongs to the type of drugs like amphetamines. However, the effect it has on behavior is similar to that of an endorphin, although the intensity of it can vary from person to person.

PEA increases energy, feelings of well being, positive outlook, and diminishes pain. It increases sexual desire. PEA adds to the feeling of being 'in love'. If you usually tend to be anxious, PEA may help you feel safe and calm. If you are usually depressed, you might have more energy and see things more positively. You believe that it is this other person that brings the best out in you and at last you’ve found the one! Because you have the help of a neurochemical boost, you are loving ‘under the influence!’ That doesn't mean your love is not real. It helps you feel in love. Romantic Love neurochemicals lower our defenses because we feel good and therefore, it gives us a glimpse the essence of the other. That’s who we fall in love with.

Stage II: Self-Protection & Disillusionment

Harville Hendrix calls this the Power Struggle. I like to call this stage, the Struggle for Self-Protection.

One of the biggest illusions in our culture is that Romantic Love will last forever, if you just find the right person.

couple walking on eggshellsWe hear that being in love is supposed to continue forever ‘naturally’ and if you have to ‘work’ on it, it must not be real love. These illusions are one of the reasons our divorce rate remains so high! When people get stuck in this stage, they begin to think they are with the wrong person.

One reason for the let-down feeling is that the 'love drugs' begin to decline. And because we see the other person as the source of our good feelings, we blame them when our loving feelings change!

In addition, little negative remarks, behaviors or looks creep into the relationship and lead to experiences of disconnection. In this 2nd stage, you might start feeling anxious or disappointed. Things that you once liked about your partner have become sources of frustration, conflict or hurt feelings. You may ask yourself, “What has happened to him/her/us?” You might experience a sense of betrayal or loss. You might feel like you have lost the person you fell in love with. At the very least, like the old song said, "You've lost that loving feeling."

What you have really lost is PEA bliss!!! As PEA declines and little negative comments or behavior are dropped into the space between you, your defenses return to protect yourself. You might withdraw. Your partner might use sarcasm or criticism. Instead of relating to a person, you both begin reacting to a protective pattern. It can feel like love is dying. You begin thinking or saying things like: “If you would just. . ., then everything would be great. . .” You beging to wonder, “Is this going to be what the rest of my life is like?” You become adversaries instead of partners. You speak and act disrespectfully. The climate of your relationship becomes polluted with blame, criticism, sarcasm, put-downs, dismissing or withdrawal and silence – especially when you haven't learned good skills for handling conflict.

Anger and resentment build. One of you feels like you are walking on eggshells. You start to feel alone. Little things seem to so easily turn into big things. Winning and being right becomes more important than working together to co-create the loving, fulfilling marriage you both want.

Affection, thoughtfulness,, valuing and appreciation disappear.. If enough distress builds up, you may just avoid your partner as much as you can. Or you may turn to someone else, to work, to children, or some other person or thing to attempt to meet your needs and avoid the distress.

Couples stuck in this stage can get to the point of desperation where you’ve tried everything you know and it seems the only option is to get out --temporarily or permanently. Too many couples give in to hopelessness and despair at this stage. It feels like this unhappiness and disconnection will be for the rest of your life if you stay in this marriage. Often well-meaning friends or family encourage you to get rid of your partner because they don't want to see you unhappy or hurt. Other couples try to just cope by resigning themselves to a workable living arrangement devoid of connection. Some stay together because of the kids, or because they are afraid people will judge them, or because of financial concerns. They end up living in the same house disconnected from one another and both feeling alone.

But there IS GOOD NEWS!

You are not meant to live in distress! That is NOT what marriage or any kind of committed relationship is meant to be! This stage is an invitation to walk through the door to deeper connection and intimacy, and a fulfilling relationship -- IF you learn and use some of the tools to transform it into the path to consciousl love.

Conflict and disconnection is growth trying to happen to help you and your partner realize more of your potential as individuals and as a couple! Conflict can be a door to healing from unmet needs, old hurts that happened before you ever met your spouse, old protective patterns that worked for you once, but don't work in adult relationships.

The enemy of a happy marriage is rarely your partner — it is usually the pattern of mutual self-protection.

Conflict is NOT the problem. What you do or don’t do with it can be a big problem. Finding a new partner does not solve the ‘problems' of this stage. Your journey to healing and growth needs to happen and you will recreate the same ‘problems’ and climate that you had before. You also take your same buttons, your same 'tender spots' that you react to, your same protective behaviors, and you will tend to find yourself in a very similar place. 9 times out of 10, your partner is not the enemy. The 'enemy' is usually the pattern of mutual self-protection that add to lack of safety for each other.

This is a stage where couples often seek marriage counseling, sometimes as a last ditch effort.

Stage III & IV: Awareness and Commitment:

Usually you need some new input to move into this stage. It might be a book, a workshop, counseling, or even an article like this one. New information helps you begin to understand your disconnection and to know that the person you fell in love with is still in that person who now feels like a stranger.

This is the stage in which you not only recognize that your relationship can be more than it is, but also that you DO have the power to make real changes. You choose to become conscious and intentional based on your core values, your dreams, and a new awareness of the purpose of your conflict and disconnection. You can begin a whole new chapter in co-creating the relationship you both dreamed of.

While one or both of you may continue to feel anxious, confused, afraid, and may resist making some of the changes, you take charge as partners of the direction of your happiness as a couple. And you do that best by taking charge of your own behavior. That does not mean doing everything your spouse wants or that you have to become someone you are not. It DOES mean stretching out of your comfort zone to become more the person you really ARE underneath your protective armor.

lesbian marriage happyIn this stage, when you use good communication skills, you can gain new information and insights about yourself, about your partner, and about the nature of marriage or relationship.

You discover the hurts, fears and unmet needs that are the roots of conflict and you can find more effective ways to address the REAL problems, not just the symptoms.

A few things to help you in this stage:
1) Learn and experiment with new communication skills.
2) Go back to your blueprint of values and the ingredients you want in your marriage.
3) Focus on your OWN behavior. Look at some of the things you do, or fail to do, that are not helpful to the relationship. What are you putting into the relationship climate? Does it cultivate and nurture the relationship or pollute it? Do you seek win-win approaches to disagreements? Do you build a sense of being a team? Then begin taking one step at a time to change those things that don’t cultivate the kind of marriage you want. As Ghandi said, "Be the change you want to see."
4) Read books that explain some of the information and tools. Some that I recommend are included at the bottom of this page.
5) Attend a Getting the Love You Want workshop for couples. They are given all over the world by licensed counselors who are certified presenters.
6) If you belong to a spiritual community, check with them for programs, groups, or retreats for couples.
7) Schedule a few sessions with a counselor who focuses on teaching skills. A certified Imago Relationship Therapist is trained to do just that.That's what I use. You can find one near you in the international Imago Therapist Directory. However, there are many other counselors who use other approaches that are also very effective. Therapists trained in John Gottman's approach, Susan Johnson's, Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), or trained by Ellen Bader, Michele Weiner-Davis, or Stan Tatkin all have good tools.

Stage IV: Transformation

In this stage you consciously practice the skills you are learning about communication, stretching into new behaviors, creating emotional safety, etc. You become partners in the healing and growth of the relationship, your self and your partner. You hold in your mind and heart the vision of the relationship you want and you work each day to make it a reality. You also find that you are realizing your potential more in other parts of your life.

Stage V: Conscious Love

This is the stage of deep respect and cherishing of one another as separate and unique individuals without losing the sense of connection. It is a stage of joy, passion, intimacy, happiness and having fun together, whether you are 30, 50 or 80. long-term marriage

It is the stage of living out the vision of true partnership, unconditional love and safety, and of coming to see your partner as your best friend.

It is the stage of moving toward the spiritual potential of committed relationship the journey toward wholeness, the love in which you taste Divine Love in whatever way you imagine or language that.

This Conscious Love, or vintage love, is possible for you if you are both willing to do the work it requires. It never ‘just happens by itself.’ You don't have to wait until you are retired to have it. But it also doesn't happen in 5 years. It takes time and building a history of love and meeting challenges together.

You can begin NOW building the marriage or relationship you dream of. It takes effort to create a real sense of partnership and a commitment in which you both are determined and truly believe that you can get through whatever happens in life and your relationship.

If you need help to move through the stages and toward Conscious love, get it! Good marriage and relationship therapists can help you! Couples weekends and marriage workshops can help.

Don’t settle for distress. Don’t throw away your relationship because it feels uncomfortable or difficult. You will most likely only repeat the process in the next relationship. (Certainly, if you are in a physically abusive relationship, you need to protect yourself and your children and there are groups and resources in your area to help you.)

Note: If one of you has an addiction, start by getting help together for the addiction. Once you are both working on the addiction, then you can begin working on the marriage. Otherwise the addiction will undermine your best efforts to transform your marriage. I recommend the same for severe anxiety or depression.

Remember, most divorces and breakups of committed relationships do not need to happen if there is any willingness to work.

You can make marriage or your committed relationship a gift for yourself, your partner, and your children. What a legacy to leave them and your world!

If you need some help or coaching to navigate these stages or to get out of the stage of conflict and disappointment, contact me for what form of help would work best for you if you think you want to work with me: marriage/couples counseling, a counseling intensive, or a couples workshop. (I offer Getting the Love you Want weekend workshops and I offer private couple workshops.)
For additional information on Imago Relationship Therapy, visit my 3-part series on What IS Imago Relationship Therapy?


** Images of young co uple gazing into eyes and couple back to back are used courtesy of David Castillo Dominici from

© Dawn Lipthrott, LCSW is a licensed psychotherapist specializing in marriage and relationships in Winter Park, FL. Her goal is to help you take the relationship you have and make it much more of the one you both truly want -- and in so doing, make the world a better place.

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